This column is about words. It is about the words we use to describe ourselves. It is about the words we use in our visioning. It is about the words serving as our creative ground, our links to the world, our face to the public and our self-image. In particular, it is about the philosophical and functional inadequacies of the words we have chosen to accept as the most potent descriptors of what we do.
Words are serious business. Words are our keys to communication and understanding. No matter the undertaking, if our words are inadequate to their necessary functions, it is hard to grow, develop, improve or mature. Words are how we share and present ourselves. They are how we perceive ourselves. And, contrary to the school-yard rhyme, words will always hurt us.
This is especially true when the word describes a profession or an important subset of a profession. In our theoretical discussions, we often have compared the history of our profession to the growth of a child into an adolescent, then a young adult. We mostly agree that we just recently have emerged from adolescence. Accordingly, I ask, is our language appropriate for enabling this adolescent profession to grow full bloom into its potential? I suggest it is not. Rather, it is a straitjacket of inhibition and inborn limitation.
I further suggest that our self-referential vocabulary requires new seeds, intentional planting, conscientious nurturing, prudent cultivation and, ultimately, intelligent usage. I believe in the power of language. I enjoy it and respect it. I appreciate its proper use and take pleasure in its creative applications.
Likewise, I believe bad language can be an extraordinary impediment to the growth and evolution of something as impalpable as a profession. In this vein, I believe that bad language will stunt the growth of that which is in the process of unfolding, currently inaptly labeled as Life Planning, hereinafter referred to as LP.
I further believe we need to cease accepting LP as being descriptive of financial planning that goes beyond number crunching and product selling. Or as being synonymous with the most exquisite financial planning being performed by our most accomplished practitioners. Or as being representative of skills that truly accomplished financial advisors must master (as if all physicians must perform brain surgery in order to be called "doctor.")
Accordingly, I suggest that such casual acceptance of a bad label for our field give way to professionwide dialogues as to appropriate nomenclature and exactly what we are trying to articulate when we are tempted to use that regrettable term LP.
In my heart, I am confident a word is out there that can carry the weight it must bear if the profession we are cultivating is to reach its potential. Are we up to the search?
Unfortunately, LP is gaining cultural currency with some speed. It has appeared in articles in this publication. It is a title track at this year's Success Forum. We see it appear with some regularity in our industry press. Where does it come from? What does it mean? Most important, why are we accepting it without a thoughtful process?
Why does this matter? Because LP represents the profound promise of our emerging profession. Because macro and micro economies increasingly are demanding integration of markets and values. Because we must weave our work with other professions and invite cohesion, not erect barriers. Because money can no longer be severed from life in any meaningful fashion in any meaningful category. Because money is the most powerful secular force on the planet with implications ranging from the intensely spiritual to the profoundly personal to the abjectly political to the overwhelmingly global. Because money skills are 21st century survival skills and because money skills do not come in DNA. Because a balanced relationship with money is essential to personal empowerment. Because the capitalist/communist dialectic is old, tired, irrelevant and a hindrance to personal and political progress. Because what we do really, really, really matters, and it is time we accepted our inherent responsibilities and stepped up to fill the shoes we have claimed as our own.
For 18 years, I have been searching for a word for our profession. It is elusive. I have developed my list of "shoulds." I am looking for a word that conveys dignity and power. It should be a word that could appear as the "Department of ..." at a prestigious college or university. In my dreams, the word holds a space for connections with related professions and disciplines. It is grounded solidly in common understanding, yet it lends itself to exploration and growth.
It should be a word that generates visions, dreams and intellectual progress. And it ought to be a word that can host discussions of values, life purpose, meaning and social policies and implications. It should be a word that can integrate the notions of religion and spirit implicit in the belief system that is money. Finally, it ought to be a word that can carry the weight implicit in concepts of helping individual communities and nations address the majesty of money.
"Architect" is such a word. So is "theologian" or "scientist" or "attorney" or "physician" or "accountant" or "engineer."
Maybe the word comes from another language. Maybe it is in Latin or Swahili. Maybe it simply requires a new look at an existing English word. Maybe it will be something we invent from whole cloth with derivative syllables. Maybe it will connect to something emerging from another sector of inquiry. Certainly it would emerge from our dialogues with each other if we earnestly seek to know our own name.
With regard to LP, honestly, I find the term distasteful. I don't know what it means, but it feels "big." I mean big as in boxy big or indulgent big or cumbersome big, not "big" in terms of grand schemes, revolutionary thoughts, multidimensions or spiritual insights. Frankly, it also feels like a throwback to the financial products that gave us birth. Not to belittle our roots, but that container is just too small to hold what it must.
People I know and respect use the term as if it has meaning. So, perhaps, it is just me. But I have had a couple of conversations lately with other people I know, respect and like, and they seem to be having some of the same problems. Within these conversations, I find common agreement that the term feels bad, seems limiting and nonvisionary and continues to feed into the product bias that remains a source of limitation for our profession. And, oh yeah, does anyone besides me think that LP is just a teensy-weensy bit pretentious?
My fear is this: Once "LP" gets some hold on our profession's culture, it will be difficult to rid ourselves of its inadequacies, particularly those that short-circuit vision. Perhaps it is already too late, though I do not think so. I believe the right word is out there. I just hope we have the internal fortitude to engage in a search that is healthful, intelligent and mutually respectful.
For the record, I am not particularly big on the term "financial planner" either-which feeds my concern about LP. "Financial planning" has given us no end of difficulty in terms of the law, in terms of becoming a commodity and in terms of directing this emerging profession of personal financial advisors toward end uses that are of dubious benefit to clients or ourselves. It certainly confuses craft with essence and wisdom. In turn, it muddles our special stuff with that of others.
Lest I get the arrows for the wrong reasons, I love our profession. I believe our work is profound and essential and that we are 21st century heroes. It's the name that gives me problems. The words are common, used in a wide array of mediums. The words in combination are slippery and mundane. Is "financial planning" a noun or a verb? Or merely the adjective our trademark-seeking friends would have it be? I.e., is it a product or a process? If you do "it," (plan, a verb) are you one (planner, a noun)? Must we be comprehensively skilled or comprehensively literate? I could go on.
We know some of us are genuine advisors. We know others of "us" are basically salespeople. How do we distinguish between "us"? Or do we simply settle for confusing the public and get on with life?
Frankly, I know the problems with "financial planning." I have lived with them and gone into them in great depth in many forums over the past 19 years. LP has all these difficulties and more.
The problem is that it communicates a product. It feels like one of those industrial revolution terms, designed to commoditize the voids created by the ineffable. It especially feels confining, like it is missing essential multiple dimensions. It communicates a need for credentials with all the "stuff" that comes with that, including credential-conferring bodies, standards, black-letter resolutions and ... certainly not an emphasis on "wisdom" but on "expertise." Does it include ...? You name it. If it is in "life," it could be included. Gosh, will we get sued if we don't have a perfect grip on "Life?" Can imperfect folks with imperfect lives even contemplate the practice of LP? Shudder.
"LP" takes generic terms and tries to make them specific, to make them look like something that ought to mean something but in the end, doesn't quite get there. Finally, it tends to suck the creativity and vitality out of thoughts and efforts that could get exciting if given light and breath. Could it even be too early to try to pick a name that sticks? ("No, this is LP that's not really LP." "No, we are the true life planners, those guys just want to..." "LP is really just a subset of FP." "We have been doing LP for years, we just have not called it that.") Whatever. Been there, done that. Served on the committees to show for it. These are not exactly organic or strange attractor terms. Nor can any of these attitudes remotely aid our growth, in any sense of the word.
Now, in saying this, I want to do nothing to disparage the thinking that has gone into "LP" type work. I am not attacking either the thinking or those motivations that have gone into it. It is the term "LP" that needs work. I believe we got stuck with "financial planning," and, honestly, IMHO it has not grown with us. I would hate to see the same thing come from trying to reduce thoughts and visions grounded in our most profound thinking to two little words that can neither define nor provide a basis for thought and growth.
You know, when we need mathematics (Monte Carlo) to tell us that life contains uncertainties, I suggest we have some fundamental flaws in our thinking about life, money and our profession. Let's not perpetuate such flaws with bad terminology for describing the deepest and most profound aspects of our work.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe "Life Planning" is the greatest term since whenever. Yet, even if so, I suggest we need explore the term so thoroughly that it can critically stand as a beacon for intellectual ferment, spiritual growth and personal fulfillment at the levels we all think we mean when we use it. If not, we need to be about the hard work of developing the appropriate words to describe our business and guide our thinking.
Or we need to be about the easier work of taking one step at a time into this treacherous terrain in the humble belief that appropriate vocabulary will emerge when it is time.
Let's stop the train. Our work deserves good language. We need to find the Word.
Richard Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving, LLC, based in Denver. He has been a practicing financial advisor for more than 18 years and is a national past president of the Institute of Certified Financial Planners.